A long time ago in a land far away, I was a foreign correspondent covering the civil war in Bosnia. It was a conflict that made one despair about human nature. It gave us the term “ethnic cleansing,” the siege of the capital, Sarajevo, and the indelible shame of Srebrenica, where thousands of Muslim men and boys were massacred.
Coming in the 1990s at the height of America’s unchallenged global dominance, it also allowed many Westerners—journalists among them—to shake their heads about crazy Balkan people who had been “killing each other for centuries.” An easy and very comforting thing it is, to feel morally superior.
I’d just spent three exhilarating years covering Mikhail S. Gorbachev’s reforms in the Soviet Union. Now, I saw the bodies of war dead for the first time in the Balkans, drove streets reduced to rubble, witnessed the courage of doctors operating on shelling victims without electricity…and sat across the table from war criminals. (I served mostly as an editor; many reporters witnessed far worse.)
The question I kept asking myself was this: “What makes people discard the evidence of their own experiences, that people of different religions and ethnic groups had gotten along, celebrated each other’s holidays—and chosen instead to substitute a conspiratorial and violent world view imposed from the outside?”
One day, a colleague in Serbia—no fan of the armed Serbs responsible for the war’s worst atrocities, but also fed up with the smug superiority of foreigners—remarked that he’d like to see how Americans would react if they were subjected day after day to the level of propaganda Serbs had seen.
We’ve watched it coming for a long time, but on Wednesday, we got a pretty clear answer.
The storming of the U.S. Capitol was in equal measures scary and pathetic. It made for compelling television, but I couldn’t generate huge outrage–except for President Trump’s taped message whining again about the election results, and kinda sorta asking his supporters to go home. This was never going to amount to much.
But it presented more evidence that Americans, after all, (and much to the surprise of many of us) are not special. And that it’s dangerous when you get twisted up in your own myths.
Americans have shown that—just like everyone else on this planet—we can be driven to violence by misinformation, fear, and greed. We have been blessed with a remarkable-but-flawed founding document hammered out by remarkable-but-flawed founders. Generally, we’ve done pretty well with it. We offered opportunity to millions of immigrants, including my Czech and Slovak relatives, while grinding some under the wheels of our progress, enslaving countless others, and crushing those who were here before us. Decade after decade, recent arrivals have felt the urge to slam the door behind them.
Crowds and power
My comparison to the destruction of Yugoslavia goes only so far, of course. We are not in a civil war, and chances are that we won’t go there. But as my colleague in Serbia knew, fear and uncertainty are huge motivators. First, someone plants a seed in the human mind, then carefully nurtures it with a steady drip of lies. Soon we find ourselves wondering what that neighbor is really thinking. What that immigrant really wants. What’s the risk if you don’t act first? What do you stand to lose?
On Wednesday, for the first time in years, I thought of Nobel Literature laureate Elias Canetti and his masterwork, Crowds and Power. I’ll be honest, I haven’t read it cover-to-cover. Years ago, I lent my copy to a friend who didn’t return it. Perhaps it’s time now to go back to this book about the psychology of mobs and their relationships with rulers. Perhaps it’s time for people who think they have nothing to learn from the rest of the world to pay some attention to this man born in Bulgaria near the turn of the 20th century.
And I suddenly thought of a line from one of my favorite Paul Simon songs, the pensive “An American Tune,” about how “you can’t be forever blessed.” It sure looked that way on Wednesday.
Most of all, I thought again of one of the most striking interviews I conducted during the war in Bosnia: a conversation with a small-town grocer. I had asked about something else entirely, but once he got talking the words gushed from him. He and the best men of his village had watched the war consume it, and he was filled with regret—not about what he’d done, but about what he hadn’t done. They had seen it coming. They thought it would all blow over.
They did nothing.